The Los Angeles-based artist Ed Ruscha has been a major presence in the art world for more than forty years. Although initially identified with a Southern California variant of pop art, Ruscha's singular vision, deadpan humor, and focus on words have earned him a distinct place of his own. This first museum retrospective devoted to his drawings reveals that Ruscha works magic not only with words and images but also with media and techniques. The title of the exhibition, a quote from the artist, refers to some of his drawing tools (cotton puffs and Q-tips®) and his illusory effects (smoke and mirrors). Ruscha frequently uses cotton puffs to layer powdered graphite, gunpowder, or pastel onto his papers and Q-tips® for the finer touches.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1937, Ruscha grew up in Oklahoma before moving to Los Angeles in 1956. His ambition was to become a commercial artist, and over the next four years he studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), north of Los Angeles. He set out taking courses in photography and graphic design and did freelance work as well, first as a sign painter and later as a typesetter and pressman for an art book publisher. But at Chouinard, he became drawn to the fine arts. Of the switch, Ruscha explains, "I saw a reproduction in some obscure magazine of Jasper Johns' Target with Four Faces  and [one of] Robert Rauschenberg's combine[s]....I knew from then on that I was going to be a fine artist."
The exhibition traces Ruscha's career from his early pop images of gas stations and Hollywood logos through his gunpowder "ribbon" drawings, luminous pastels, experiments with "stains" (coffee, vegetable juices, rose petals), and quirky phrases culled from the American vernacular. It concludes with works that incorporate shadowy silhouettes, oddly orientated maps of Los Angeles, and frames from films. Words are clearly Ruscha's prevailing medium for translating his vision. He gives them physical voice in a variety of scripts and styles—from gothic to longhand, from ribbonlike lettering to characters that seem poured rather than printed. Despite the formal precision of Ruscha's drawings, they nonetheless remain equivocal, evoking the "smoke and mirrors" of the magician's game.